Arizona Football Pre-Media Day Notes

July 29, 2009


Follow Pac-10 Media Day Live!

Tucson, Ariz. - The 2009 Pacific-10 Conference Football Media will kickoff at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, July 30. Arizona fans can watch the press conferences live online.

Head coach Mike Stoops and senior free safety Cam Nelson will represent the Wildcats at the event. The designated time for Arizona begins at 11:10 a.m. PT.

Fans can also participate in this year’s media day activities on Twitter by tweeting their questions to: http://twitter.com/pac10.

In the meantime, here are some Arizona football notes to whet your appetite before the start of Fall Camp next week:

Taking on the Pac: In 2008, Arizona posted its first plus-.500 season in Pac-10 play since the 1998 season with a 5-4 mark en route to a Las Vegas Bowl appearance. But going back to the end of the 2007 season when UA won 3-of-4 Pac-10 games to end the year, the Wildcats have posted an 8-5 mark in their last 13 league games. Further, the five losses have come by a combined 23 points (4.6 ppg), including three of the losses by a FG or less (’07 at ASU, ’08 at Stanford, ’08 vs. No. 21 Oregon State). While the losses have been hard fought and oh-so-close, UA has handily defeated its opponents, winning by an average of 18.3 point per game in the eight wins.

Visiting the Zoo? The Arizona student section – affectionately named the ‘Zona Zoo’ – seats nearly 12,000 standing-room only seats from endzone-to-endzone behind the UA team bench on the east side of the stadium. It’s been as raucous as any around, filling to capacity an hour before kickoff for opponents ranging from Idaho to USC. The in-game atmosphere has certainly picked up in recent years giving UA a decided home field advantage. The Wildcats have posted a 7-2 mark in their last nine home games, with the two losses coming by a combined nine points to No. 6 USC and No. 21 Oregon State in 2008. In fact, during the nine-game span that dates back to the end of the 2007 season, Arizona has outscored opponents 327-155 in Arizona Stadium, or by an average score of 36-17. Additionally, Arizona won five home games in a season (’08) for the first time since 1998. Since 1950, the Cats have won five games at home 15 times. Arizona was perfect at home twice in that span, 6-0 in 1961 and 6-0 in 1993.

Three-Year Span: Over the last three seasons, Mike Stoops and Co. have posted a winning record of 19-18. That puts the Wildcats among just six conference teams that have a winning overall record since the start of the 2006 season. UA’s 19 victories in three seasons surpass the 16 total wins Arizona teams collected from the 2001 through 2005 seasons, a five-year stretch. The current three-year win total is best for a set of UA teams since the 1998-2000 squads combined to win 23 games, paced heavily by the 12-win season in 1998.

In the Trenches: In a spread offense that included Arizona’s career leader in nearly every offensive passing category (Willie Tuitama) and the Pac-10’s all-time leader in receptions (Mike Thomas, 259), it’s easy to overlook another critical area where offensive success was born – on the offensive line. Talent, depth and stability were – for the first time in a while – traits of UA’s O-Line, which helped balance out the offense from a pass-first team to one that could run or pass at will. This year, Arizona loses second round draft pick Eben Britton (Jaguars) from his left tackle spot, as well as right guard Joe Longacre (graduation). Each anchored a starting position for all 13 games a year ago and their veteran leadership will certainly be missed. James Tretheway (seven starts) is also gone, but returning are 66 career starts elsewhere, a total that is fourth-best amongst all Pac-10 teams. Included is Rimingtion Trophy watch list honoree Colin Baxter who moved from left guard to center when Blake Kerley went down in the fourth game with a season-ending knee injury. Kerley had accumulated 28 starts, while Baxter now has 24 at either guard or center. Mike Diaz, who is versatile enough to play left guard or tackle, started eight games a year ago. Tackle Adam Grant was the starting right tackle to begin 2008 and made five starts, but an injury limited his action over the final seven games. Grant returns for his senior year again as the starter at right tackle.

D-Line Depth: Arizona has 46 career starts returning along the defensive front and, interestingly, all but one of those starts weremade a season ago. Indeed, the Wildcats’ defensive line was talented, but vastly inexperienced in 2008. Now the entire two-deep has significant playing experience – as starters or backups – and only part-time starter Kaniela Tuipulotu (transferred to Hawaii) departs. Fortunately for the Wildcats, one-time starter Lolomana Mikaele (an expected starter a year ago who missed the season for a disciplinary issue) was already penciled in ahead of Tuipulotu on the depth chart following spring ball. A rotation four defensive ends and five to six tackles (not including newcomers) figure to give UA as deep of a front-line unit as any team in the conference.

Coaching Newcomers: Mike Stoops' staff has two new faces in 2009, with both on hand for spring ball -- running backs and tight ends coach Seth Littrell and inside receivers coach Garret Chachere. The former came from Texas Tech and the Mike Leach spread system, with an Oklahoma player background, while the latter arrived from Memphis with some recent special teams and an offense-defense hybrid background. They replaced Dana Dimel and Michael Smith, respectively, who both took jobs at Kansas State.

Watch Lists: Arizona has several players on early watch lists with several more likely to come. Center Colin Baxter is on the Rimington Trophy list while tight end Rob Gronkowski is on the John Mackey Award list. Running back Nic Grigsby is expected to be announced as a candidate for the Doak Walker Award, while punter Keenyn Crier should return to the Ray Guy Award list. UA should, too, have a receiver emerge for potential consideration for the Biletnikoff Award, likely Terrell Turner or Delashaun Dean, while senior corner Devin Ross is expected to be mentioned as a Jim Thorpe Award candidate.

Watchin’ the Charts: The record-breaking careers of Willie Tuitama and Mike Thomas are now complete in the UA record books, but a handful of returning Wildcats are looking to etch their names into the UA annals this year … Paced by his 10 receiving touchdowns in 2008 (tied for third-best in a single season at UA) Rob Gronkowski currently stands tied for seventh in UA history with 16 receiving touchdowns. The junior trails Theopolis ‘T’ Bell, who snared 30 TD catches from 1972-75, but just eight more TD grabs for Gronkowski would tie him for second with Dennis Northcutt. Gronkowski, whose 12-catch game at Oregon in ’08 tied for second-best ever at UA, has 75 total receptions in his two seasons, which stands 34 short of breaking UA’s top-10 chart. Additionally, Gronkowski needs just 455 more yards to crack the UA career receiving chart … Junior running back Nic Grigsby has 1,857 rushing yards in his two seasons to date, which leaves him just 203 yards shy of moving into 10th-place in program history. Grigsby’s 13 rushing TD’s in ’08 tied for third-most in a season, while his 1,153 yards rushing were ninth-best at UA for a single season. He stands two rushing TD’s shy of matching Mike Bell’s 17 TD’s for 10th-most at Arizona … Sophomore running back Keola Antolin scored 10 rushing TD’s in ’08, which was tied for the sixth-highest single-season total at UA and leaves him just seven shy of breaking into UA’s career top-10. Antolin’s 24 points scored on four rushing TD’s at Oregon in ’08 is the third-highest total in UA history … Senior wide receiver Terrell Turner currently has 94 career receptions, a total that is just 15 shy of matching Terry Vaughn’s 109 grabs for 10th-most at UA. Turner, who had 10 catches (t-13th-most in a game at UA) for 175 yards (t-11th-most in a game at UA) at Stanford in ’08, has 1,162 career receiving yards. A modest 490 yards will move Turner into UA’s top-10 for career receiving yards … Junior wide receiver Delashaun Dean has 90 career receptions for 1,011 yards. He stands 19 receptions and 641 yards shy of breaking into UA’s career top 10 in each respective category … Senior cornerback Devin Ross, who broke up 13 passes a year ago and has 15 in his career, needs 11 more to break into UA’s top-10 chart in the category … Junior punter Keenyn Crier, whose first two seasons each rank in UA’s top-six for single-season punting, could challenge UA career leader Nick Folk for highest career punting average. Crier’s average currently is 43.79 yards per punt, while Folk’s career mark was 44.19.

Big Shoes to Fill: Not only is UA sophomore place kicker Alex Zendejas the nephew of former UA great Max Zendejas, but he has been assigned the task of filling the shoes of predecessors Nick Folk and Jason Bondzio, who each put their names in the books as two of UA’s premier specialists. Behind the legs of Folk and Bondzio, Arizona has drilled 57-of-73 (78%) field goals from the start of the 2005 season through the end of 2008. During that span, UA’s 57 made field goals have been far from chip-shots, as they have totaled 1,993 yards – or 35.0 yards per make. The Wildcats have seen 98 percent (150-153) of their PAT kicks successfully made during the four-year span. Zendejas will get his first crack at field goals this season, but he successfully booted 5-of-5 PATs as a freshman in 2008.

Second Half Surge: Over the last two seasons, Arizona has used an explosive offense and a stingy defense to dominate the second half of some games. In 2008, Arizona outscored opponents 235-111 in the second half of games, which marked a nearly 10-point advantage per second half in 13 games. Combining the 2007 season (161-127 second half advantage), UA has outscored its last 25 opponents by a total of 396-238 in the second half of games. That averages out to a second half score of 15.8-9.5, or nearly a full touchdown advantage. Additionally, 10 of those opponents have been held to a touchdown or less in the second half of games, including four shutouts.

Getting Pickier: The magic number for the UA defense, most notably the secondary, is 17 – as in that’s the number to beat last year’s 16 interception total. That mark by the ’08 squad continued a trend of increasing the total number of picks each year under the defense led by coordinator Mark Stoops. Devin Ross, a second team All-Pac-10 honoree at CB, snared three INTs a year ago and he will team up with fellow corner and projected starter Trevin Wade, who led the Wildcats with four picks despite playing a backup role. Defensive end Ricky Elmore and ’08 backup safety Joe Perkins each added an interception last year, which gives UA nine returning interceptions. Here’s a look at the year-by-year numbers under Stoops:

Year                       INTs
2004                       5
2005                       12
2006                       13
2007                       15
2008                       16

The Sacks Are Back: The ’08 Wildcat defense totaled just 24 sacks, but a young defensive line picked up the pace as the season progressed and is primed for big improvement in ’09. The Wildcats recorded just three sacks in the first three games a season ago, but tallied 21 over the final 10 games. Bookends Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore totaled eight and four sacks, respectively, to lead the Wildcats, while linebackers Ronnie Palmer and Xavier Kelley had three sacks apiece. The good news for the Wildcats in ’09 is that 21 of the 24 sacks return as Palmer is the only player who recorded a sack not returning to the defense. With a year of experience under their belts, added strength and more depth, UA’s front four hopes to provide a more substantial pass rush in ’09.

Turnover Turnaround: The Wildcats benefitted from a plus-6 turnover margin in 2008, which was the second-best margin under Stoops (plus-7 in 2006). Arizona’s 19 giveaways matched the 2006 and 1998 squads for the fewest since 1997, when UA turned the ball over only 18 times on the season. The 25 takeaways nearly matched the 26 by the ’06 squad, which is the top mark for a Stoops team in his five seasons at Arizona.

Premier Punters: A string of punters – Danny Baugher, Nick Folk and Keenyn Crier – have given UA an extra defensive weapon over the last four seasons. Baugher, one of the top punter’s in the nation as a senior before a season-ending injury, was replaced by Folk who took over the duties for the remainder of the 2005 season. Folk then assumed the duties again fulltime in his senior season of 2006, before handing over the reigns to Keenyn Crier the last two years. The cumulative result has been an average of 44.28 yards per punt over the last four seasons, and a net punting average of no worse than 36.0 in any of the four seasons. Crier and the UA coverage team posted an impressive mark of 38.1 net punting in 2007, one of the top marks in school history. Here’s a look at where the four individuals rank in single season punting average at UA:

Player (Yr.)                           Ave.                        Rank
Baugher (’05)                       47.5                        1
Folk (’06)                               44.0                        3
Crier (’08)                              43.9                        t-4
Crier (’07)                              43.7                        t-6

Offense Through Defense: The Arizona offense reaped the benefits of an opportunistic defense in 2008, as the Wildcat ‘D’ forced 25 turnovers. The offense cashed in those turnovers for points 16 times (64%), with 14 leading to touchdowns. A pair of those scores were by the defense, with Devin Ross (vs. Cal) and Nate Ness (at Stanford) collecting a pick-six, respectively. But beyond the turnovers, the UA ‘D’ sparked the offense simply by forcing the opposing team off the field. UA’s defense forced 78 punts in 2008. Following those punts, the UA offense scored 35 times (45%), including an impressive 26 touchdowns (33.3%). Conversely, the UA defense limited opposing teams to just nine touchdowns (18%) following an Arizona punt. Further, following a UA punt, its defense forced a turnover (12%) or a punt (47%) back to the offense a combined 59 percent of the time.

Brooks’ Breakthrough: Entering his sophomore season in 2008, defensive end Brooks Reed had only seven tackles in nine games played as a backup. He emerged as UA’s top rush-end during Fall Camp, but it took some time before the results showed on the field. He tallied just one sack and nine solo tackles through UA’s first six games. But against a pair of nationally ranked teams, he exploded in October and proved to be one of the Pac-10’s top ends. In UA’s 42-27 victory over No. 25 Cal, Reed collected a pair of sacks. One week later, against No. 6 USC, Reed’s crushing hit on Mark Sanchez forced a fumble that led directly to a UA score to tie the game in the third quarter. It gave him three sacks in two games, and set the stage for the rest of the regular season. Over the last seven games, he collected seven of his team-high eight sacks, and notched 17 solo tackles. Only a junior, 2009 could be an even bigger break-out year for Reed.

 

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